Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: The Racket (1928)
  • Standing: Nominated for Best Picture 1927/28 season
  • Type: Silent, Crime, Drama
  • Other AA Wins: 0
  • Other AA Nominations: 0
  • Director: Lewis Milestone
  • Studio: Paramount Pictures
  • Producer: The Caddo Company / Howard Hughes
  • Cast: Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim, Marie Prevost, George E. Stone
  • Production Notes: Written by Bartlett Cormack and based on his 1927 play by the same name, Cinematography by Tony Gaudio
  • Viewing Order: 5/270

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Summary & Viewing Experience:

Honest cop Captain James McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) squares off against bootlegger Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), determined to land him in jail, only to find that many of McQuigg’s colleagues (including a judge and the district attorney) are already in Scarsi’s pocket.

In an effort to flaunt his freedom and lifestyle in McQuigg’s face, Scarsi invites him to a party he’s throwing for his younger brother Joe (George E. Stone), a college boy who Scarsi is determined to keep out of “the racket.” McQuigg accepts in order to keep an eye on him. He gets his first hint that busting Scarsi will be an upward battle when Chick, a man from Scarsi’s gang who McQuigg just arrested hours ago, shows up at the party. But it’s not until Scarsi murders a rival gang member, an act that’s witnessed by many including McQuigg, and gets the same treatment as Chick that McQuigg knows something is terribly wrong. McQuigg vows to run Scarsi out of town while Scarsi, no longer amused by McQuigg’s interfering, vows to do the same to him.

The Racket shows the intricacies of a feud between two powerful men on two sides of the law, but this isn’t only a doubles act. Enter Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost) a nightclub performer serving as the entertainment at Joe’s party. After being publicly humiliated and called a golddigger by Scarsi for flirting with Joe, Helen hits back – literally – and vows to stick it to Nick, using Joe as the glue.

So begins the tug of war between Scarsi, McQuigg, and Hayes, each equally determined to get what they want and each finding themselves at the mercy of and with the upper hand over the other two at various points in the film. It’s a hypnotic dance.

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The 3 leads square off: Wolheim, Meighan, and Prevost

I was incredibly impressed with the cinematography and editing. The shots were framed so beautifully they looked like still photographs and the sets were perfectly staged and lit.

This was generally acknowledged as Meighan’s picture and he did do a fantastic job as the protagonist McQuigg, but Wolheim and Prevost were also praised (rightly) for their performances. 

Prevost, especially, wowed me in her role. Helen talks back to gangsters, smirks, and generally doesn’t take crap from anyone. She’s also got brains to match her male counterparts, cute gestures galore, and doesn’t try to romance either of the leads, making her probably the most interesting character in the film.

Behind the Scenes:

The title “The Racket” was slang of the time, a nickname for racketeering, which was big business in Chicago (the birthplace of the term). Racketeers profited by bootlegging, running gambling rings, extortion, and other crimes. A group of them was called a mob and there were several operating in Chicago in the late 1920s. This was the era of Al “Scarface” Capone and organized crime (organized they truly were – they even had a board of directors!).

The play was written by Bartlett Cormack, a former reporter who used his own experiences to form the story. The themes of corruption by law enforcement and politicians didn’t sit well with New York or Chicago censors. The play and film were both banned in certain cities when they came out, but the hype only made people want to see them more.

The production company that made The Racket was the Caddo Company, formed by millionaire aviator and film producer Howard Hughes. This was one of several films that Hughes and the Caddo Company would make with director Lewis Milestone, one being another film nominated for Best Picture, The Front Page (we’ll get to that one in a future post!). 23 years after The Racket came out, Hughes would remake it with his next production company, RKO, starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Lizabeth Scott in the McQuigg, Scarsi, and Hayes roles, respectively.

This was a new sort of role for Thomas Meighan, a popular leading man of the silent era, who had mostly played romantic leads. Unfortunately, it was one of the last films he would make. Though he was aging out of leading man roles, The Racket proved he could still translate well to audiences in other types of parts. A diagnosis of cancer in 1934 never allowed for that opportunity and he passed away from his illness in 1936 at age 57. The other 2 leads would also die young. Wolheim died of cancer in 1931 at age 50, while preparing to appear in the aforementioned The Front Page. Prevost died of alcoholism in 1937 at age 40.

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

The taboo surrounding the subject matter made audiences flock to see it and ultimately the film didn’t disappoint. It was praised for its well rounded characters and as one of the most realistic portrayals of the underworld crime scene to date.

How does it hold up today?

So long as mobsters and organized crime is in vogue, it seems that so too will be The Racket, though I’m more inclined to side with IMDb on this one than Rotten Tomatoes.

  • IMDb rating= 6.7 out of 10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating = 100% out of 100% fresh by critics and 74% by viewers.

 

Would this be my pick for 1927/28’s Best Picture?

The Tribune remarked that, though this was marketed as a man’s picture, women were also fans, especially “intelligent women” who “glory in truth, who applaud when current conditions are graphically exposed as to demand reform.” Thanks, Pal! Still, though I did love The Racket, it wouldn’t be my first pick. If you want to see which was, check out my post on the full 1927/28 set of nominees – out now!

*****

Sources:

“The Cinema.” The Tribune, 27 Aug. 1928, p. 10.